Exactly a century ago, in 1922, Benno von Achenbach published his masterwork, Anspannen und Fahren. The now world-famous Achenbach carriage driving system owes its roots to English coaching and the famous driving personality, Edwin Howlett. Howlett grew up in the coaching world and had served as groom and driver for a number of European nobles of the mid-19th century. In 1864, he launched his own business in Paris, and drew upon his considerable talent and experience to teach the art of four-in-hand driving to wealthy students, many of whom came from abroad to study with him.
Paris, like other major European cities of the era, was congested and had narrow streets, with coaches, carriages and delivery wagons passing each other with mere inches to spare. Using the English coaching system and his own personal experience of driving a coach and four, Howlett trained drivers in the necessary concentration and spatial awareness to drive smoothly and with precision in this chaotic environment. In 1894, Howlett published his book Driving Lessons, which is still in print today.
Achenbach was introduced to carriage driving in the late 1860s. He studied with Howlett in the 1890s, returning several times to gain a greater understanding of the English rein handling system. An accomplished driver himself by this time, Achenbach set out to improve upon Howlett’s system.
Achenbach’s system was initially designed for complete control of four horses, but he later revised the method to apply to a pair of horses as well. The result is that a student who learns to drive a pair using the Achenbach system will have a solid foundation to move up to driving four; in contrast, driving a pair using the English Coachman style is quite different from driving four, with a steeper learning curve to move from one to the other.
Achenbach’s system introduced changes to the handling of the reins and introduced a standard length for the reins, each with eleven holes for a greater range of adjustment, as opposed to the more typical nine-hole reins of the day. Achenbach designed these changes to more easily enable tight turns, to improve driving accuracy in congested areas, and to balance the workload on each horse. He also standardized procedures like measuring the reins before mounting the box seat (driving seat), and his process enabled mounting to take place with fewer grooms in attendance.
In 1906, Wilhelm II appointed Achenbach to the Royal Stables, giving him the opportunity to start training coachmen under his own system. The system worked as intended and enabled the Royal Stables to reduce the number of grooms required for putting to (hitching a coach) whilst maintaining the safety and panache required in such a prestigious position.
When World War I broke out, Achenbach’s system proved ideal for teaching driving to large numbers of new recruits, many of whom had no previous horsemanship skills. The system eventually became popular across most of mainland Europe, and spread even to the United States, where the US Army Cavalry adopted it to train their wagon drivers.
When I first began driving early in my career, a century after Achenbach’s system began to take root from Howlett’s teachings, I was taught several variations on the English Coachman style. About ten years later, I was introduced to the Achenbach style, and haven’t looked back since. When I began teaching new whips, the Achenbach style became my standard method of instruction. Not everyone is fond of the Achenbach system, but I have found it to be just as useful to training new drivers as did my predecessors in Europe and America.
Fun fact: horses are said to pull a carriage or wagon. However, mechanically speaking, they push it.
Paul Bennett is a team member of The Equine Expert LLC, a multi-discipline equine expert witness and consulting firm offering legal expert witness and consulting services in court cases, legal matters and business affairs. Paul is an expert in carriage driving, carriage horses and equine therapy. He has been a professional coachman for years in both Europe and the US and is currently the Director for Swiftsure Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Idaho. For more information on Paul visit www.theequineexpert.com or you may contact Paul at Paul@theequineexpert.com.